Irene Butter, Ph.D., Holocaust survivor

Irene hears Allied planes in summer/fall 1944 from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

by Judith Stanford Miller, M.Ed., M.A.

When Irene Hasenberg, with her brother, mother, and father, boarded a train on Jan. 21, 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany for a four-day trip to Switzerland where they would finally be free, Irene had not taken a hot shower in more than one year. Her parents were so ill from starvation and torture, they were not aware the train had departed the camp that had taken them to the brink of death. Irene’s new book – Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story – tells her heartbreaking yet hopeful story as a Holocaust survivor.

Student News Net interview with Irene (April 19, 2017)

Student News Net interviewed Irene Butter, Ph.D., Holocaust survivor, on April 19, 2017. Irene was briefly with Anne Frank, an acquaintance from Amsterdam, in January 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany.

Irene’s father John (Pappi) would not survive the train trip to freedom although he was aware his family was close to freedom. Irene held him as he died on the train on Jan. 23, 1945. His body, with his name and date of death pinned to his coat, was placed on a bench at a train station in Biberach, Germany. His family would make it to freedom in Switzerland.

Werner, Irene’s brother, and Gertrude, her mother (Mutti), were immediately hospitalized upon arriving in Switzerland.

Irene was taken to southern France where she boarded a ship bound for a refugee camp in Algeria operated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). She would live there for almost one year while paperwork was being processed for her to immigrate to the United States to live with relatives in New York City.

Irene Hasenberg, first row far right, meets new friends in Algeria in 1945 at the UN camp. (Photo: Courtesy of Irene Butter)

On Dec. 25, 1945, she arrived in the United States to begin her new life as a fifteen year old with a sixth grade education. She went on to earn her doctorate in economics from Duke University, marry Charlie Butter, a fellow Duke student, and then move to Ann Arbor, Michigan where she spent her career as a professor at the University of Michigan.

Irene could not talk about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor until the 1980s when her children were inquisitive about their mother’s experiences as a teenager during World War II. Since 1986, she has talked to hundreds of students so that the Holocaust is not lost to time or complacency.

Shore Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story
Seventy-three years after her journey out of Germany to freedom and a new life in the United States, Irene is telling her story for the world to know through her recently published book – Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story.

Written with John Bidwell and Kris Holloway, the book is an excellent resource for teachers and parents to introduce the Holocaust to middle school students, high school students, and even adults who did not learn about the Holocaust when they were in school.

Shortly after The Diary of Anne Frank was published in Europe in 1947, a friend sent Irene a copy, shown in this photo. Irene was briefly with Anne Frank at Bergen-Belsen in January 1945 before Anne died and Irene’s family was set free on a train to Switzerland. (Photo: Student News Net on April 19, 2017)

In an April 2017 interview with Student News Net, Irene said she asks students to send her reflections after she speaks to their class. Students will often write to her to tell her their parents do not know about the Holocaust.

Irene’s new book is the perfect bridge connecting teens and adults today to World War II and Holocaust history.

Irene’s youth in Amsterdam, Holland
Irene’s family moved from Berlin to Amsterdam in the 1930s to escape Hitler’s Germany. John Hasenberg, Irene’s father, and her grandfather owned a bank in Berlin that was taken from them by Hitler’s Nazi government. John had fought for Germany during World War I and was incensed when his fellow soldiers and his country abandoned him when he most needed them.

Irene’s idyllic childhood in Berlin evolved to a tolerable time in Amsterdam before 1940. They lived in a neighborhood with many Jewish families who had also left Germany, including Anne Frank and her family. Irene’s father worked for the American Express Company. Many German Jewish families believed that they would be safe in Holland because Holland had remained neutral during World War I.

Germany invades Holland (The Netherlands)
In May 1940, Germany invaded Holland and in just a few days, Nazi Germany occupied the entire country. At first, life continued as it was. But over time, life for Dutch Jews became almost impossible. They were forced to go to different schools, shop in only a few stores, and socialize with only Dutch Jews. They had to wear a yellow star on their clothing to identify them as a Jew.

And then life did become impossible.

Dutch Jews had their bicycles taken from them, making it very difficult to go to work. Soon Dutch Jews were being rounded up and sent away to concentration camps after a stop at Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland. Of about 100,000 Dutch Jews who were sent away to concentration camps, less than 10,000 survived the Holocaust.

In her book, Irene recounts her family’s horrific ordeal, first at Westerbork and then at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Her father had been able to obtain foreign passports for them so the family was allowed to remain together, the only reason the family survived, Irene said. She credits her father with their survival and says she thinks of him everyday. The passports did not allow them to leave but rather, were used by the Germans at their discretion to exchange them for captured German Prisoners of War (POWs).

Irene’s family experienced starvation, long roll calls that Irene describes as torture, and physical torture her father suffered at the hands of German guards.

Irene’s Pappi kept the family together. In summer and fall 1944, Irene heard more planes in the skies. “More and more, the flat, distant hum of planes washed over Bergen-Belsen. Pappi explained that the Allies – the good guys fighting against Hitler – were up there.” (p. 151, Shores Beyond Shores)

This photo, taken by an Allied aircraft, shows a roll call (black square) in the Star Camp section of Bergen-Belsen in the fall of 1944, the same time that Irene’s family was there. (Photo: Courtesy of Irene Butter –

Irene was with Anne Frank just once at Bergen-Belsen. Anne and her sister, Margot, had been sent to Bergen-Belsen from Auschwitz. They did not have passports so were placed in a section of the camp with only tents for shelter. The winter of 1945 in Europe was especially harsh. Allied troops fighting to hold back the German offensive in Belgium during that time lived outside in foxholes.

Bitterly cold temperatures, little food, and the rapid spread of typhus led to many deaths at Bergen-Belsen.

One January night in 1945, Irene and Hanneli Goslar, Anne Frank’s best friend from Amsterdam, heard Anne’s voice over a fence of barbed wire and straw. Anne had nothing but a blanket to cover her and asked for clothes. Irene and Hanneli went back the next night and threw her a bundle of clothes that someone else grabbed. Anne sobbed. The next day Irene’s family was told they were free to leave for Switzerland. Irene was not with Anne again.

Margot and Anne died at Bergen-Belsen sometime in January or February. The Allies liberated the camp in April.

Keep history alive
Irene’s book is a gift to history and humanity. Read it, lend it to a friend or a family member to read, ask a school librarian to purchase a copy so it sits on the shelf for generations to come, and finally, commit its lessons to heart and then act so Earth becomes a more peaceful planet.

For more information, visit Irene Butter’s website.

Editor’s note: Irene’s book is included in the People of D-Day Resource Trunk. See the tab at the top of the page for more information.

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